Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Sermon – Day 2 Rosh Hashanah 5780

Sefer Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, is one of the most confounding books of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, when read at a very deep level. We are taught that our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were these great men, to be revered as the founders of our people. We are particularly to revere Abraham, who was tested by God ten times and passed all the tests. Abraham was a truly righteous man, after all. Or was he? 

Yesterday we looked at his earlier career a bit, and explored the possibility that Abraham was a survivor of abuse as a child. If so this might have impacted his ability to function as a parent. Research suggests that as many as one third of abused children become abusive parents.

We already know from having studied the text over the years, that Abraham is a fervent believer in God. In Parashat Lekh L’kha, God tells him to go, and his response is Vayashkeim Baboker, he arose early in the morning, eager to fulfill God’s demand. What is odd, is that in an earlier part of Parashat Vayeira, from which today’s reading comes, when God tells Abraham that God is about to destroy Sodom and ‘Amorah, Abraham negotiates with God to try to save them.

Yet, when God tells Abraham, “take your son, your only son, the one you love, take Isaac, and offer him as an offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” Abraham’s response? Vayashkeim baboker. He arose early in the morning, eager to do his mission.

The Rambam, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, in Hilkhot Deot, tells us that all except the most righteous should follow a middle path in life, avoiding extreme acts. And clearly what happens here is a great example of why we should follow that advice.  We are taught to believe that Abraham was a most righteous individual, and that he passed all ten of God’s tests, but did he really?

He didn’t hesitate to challenge God about the survival of Sodom and ‘Amorah, yet when it came to sacrificing Isaac?  Rabbinic tradition teaches that Abraham learned and followed all of Torah in the academies of Shem and Eber.  I find this tradition very hard to accept, for several reasons, which come from Vayeira, which, coincidentally, was my B’Mitzvah parasha.

When it came to the command to do the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, why doesn’t Abraham ask, if he knew all of Torah, and followed it, “God, aren’t you going to forbid child sacrifice in Sefer Vayikra?  Why are you asking me to do this?” Instead, vayashkeim baboker. He rushes off to do this. 
When we look at the Midrash on this text, we see some interesting things. Isaac, knowing he is about to be sacrificed, shows some wisdom. He says, “Father tie me tightly, so I don’t flinch and nullify the offering when you bring the knife down.”  He knows his father is going to kill him, and he doesn’t want it to be in vain.

But this also reveals another issue.  Is this wisdom, or is Isaac already a victim of child abuse?  Some scholars suggest Isaac later has PTSD. Some suggest he has developmental disorders. Some rabbinic commentators suggest he is 37 years old at the time of the Akeidah. If so, and he is so stoic, there is clearly something wrong. Most middle aged men would not be so stoic about the reality that their father is about to kill them.

When I write modern Midrash, I look at what the text says, but I also look at what it does not say directly.  So let’s look at all the things that happen after the Akeidah.

God never speaks to Abraham again.
Isaac never speaks to Abraham again.
Sarah dies immediately afterwards.
When we next see Isaac, he is living in B’er L’hai Ro’i, where Hagar, his stepmother, and Ishmael, his half-brother live. Presumably he was so traumatized by the events he left his father and went to live with them.

After Sarah dies, Abraham marries a third wife, Keturah. Rashi, the commentator par excellence, suggests that this is none other than Hagar, but I find it hard to believe, given all the abuse that Abraham put Hagar through. I believe this is a separate woman.

So, Abraham eagerly did this test that God commanded him to, but in the process he lost everything that was important – he lost his entire family. Sure he had his money and property, and he has his domestic servant Eliezer, but those cannot replace his family.

And he NEVER made any attempt at Teshuva, at repairing the damage done to his family.  Of course, with Sarah, there was no opportunity. She heard about the Akeidah and promptly died. But Abraham knew where Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael were living. He could have attempted to connect with them and make some form of amends.

Yes, Isaac and Ishmael do bury Abraham. But I buried my father too.  We all have a holy obligation to bury our fathers, even when they are abusive.

Mahzor Lev Shalem has a Yizkor prayer in memory of a parent who was hurtful. We will highlight that prayer before the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur.

Jewish law states that for you to forgive someone they must first ask for forgiveness. However, there are times when people are not able or willing to ask for forgiveness. This was the case with Abraham. But where does that leave the person who was harmed?  You can stay angry, hurt and suffering, of course.  Or you can seek help to work through the trauma.  You may never be able to truly forgive or forget the harm that was done to you, but with the help of professionals and time, the intensity of the pain can be lessened. But it is vital that if you have suffered trauma at the hands of others you seek professional help. Trauma is a poison that eats away at you, and will eventually kill you from the inside out.  

Suicide rates, especially in the military communities, are very high these days.  If you are experiencing thoughts of self-harm, extreme stress or other emotional pain, please seek help. I know it can feel very daunting to do so. But please remember that the Torah tells us that we are to LIVE. And for those around you, remember that saving a life takes precedence, so if you see that your partner, your child or parent, your friend, is hurting, you MUST take action.

I pray that as we enter this New Year, we see increased healing and less hurt, and that we all enjoy a healthy and happy new year.
Shana Tova Umetuka

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